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A Real good time for multimedia

RealNetworks convenes its annual gathering in San Francisco amid a feeling that even as the multimedia landscape undergoes drastic changes, momentum is still on the company's side.

Paul Festa Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Paul Festa
covers browser development and Web standards.
Paul Festa
4 min read
SAN FRANCISCO--RealNetworks convened its annual gathering here today amid a feeling that even as the multimedia landscape undergoes drastic changes, momentum is still on the company's side.

This week's third annual conference and exhibition launched this morning with a pep talk by Real chief executive Rob Glaser, who painted a sunny picture of his firm's competitive position and of its opportunity to seize a commanding role as Internet multimedia becomes increasingly mainstream.

Glaser began his keynote by announcing that the RealPlayer had 61 million users, up from 20 million last year and 9 million in 1997.

He also pointed to high-profile Webcasts, such as the first live birth on the Internet and President Clinton's grand jury testimony, as examples of the medium's increasing influence.

"These have had a transformative effect on the way media practitioners work in this society," Glaser said.

RealNetworks has undergone a rapid evolution in recent months as it has responded to the explosion of interest in the MP3 (MPEG 1, Audio Layer 3) format.

RealNetworks last month announced its acquisition of Xing Technology, which develops MP3 software. And on Monday the company launched the RealJukebox, which allows users to download, store, and manage music in MP3 and other formats in personalized online libraries. Jukebox also converts compact discs into digital file formats for use on computers.

Real said Jukebox had more than 100,000 downloads in the first day and 250,000 after two days.

Now that RealNetworks has staked its claim on MP3 downloads on personal computers, it is eyeing the market for the more portable devices. Real's vice president of consumer products, Dave Richards, today demonstrated a prototype of the RCA Lyra, announced Monday, a product that will let users port music on a small piece of hardware and a memory card the size of a half-dollar.

Keynote highlights
Much of Glaser's keynote touted Jukebox and Monday's announcements, but he also made a flurry of new announcements:

 RealPlayer G2 streaming software is now available in a shipping product for the Macintosh platform. Also released today was the RealPlayer G2 Update 2 for Windows. Both let users play MP3 music files and feature general performance enhancements. Update 2 also is integrated with the RealJukebox beta, with a Jukebox button and menu item.

 The developer release of RealProducer G2 version 6.1 became available today. This prerelease software includes Real's series of applications, code-named "Project Janus," intended to provide a better framework for searching multimedia content. Included in the developer release is a component that embeds clip descriptions and keywords along with the title, author, and copyright information. The release also will let authors opt out of crawler-based search indexes and supports an unspecified "standards-based content rating system."

 Real announced the beta version of an application that integrates RealServer G2 with various advertising content creation solutions, giving advertisers a new avenue into multimedia content.

 Lotus Development's Notes and Domino products now are integrated with RealSystem G2, letting users send video and audio clips in their documents. The product, Domino Media Connection Services, is posted on Lotus's Web site.

 RealNetworks and Intel announced RealText 3D, a tool for creating three-dimensional animated text in low-bandwidth environments. Glaser's demonstration of this technology drew an enthusiastic response from the keynote audience as text broke apart into letters that rolled, twisted, faded, and melted.

Is Real on track?
Although RealNetworks is working to keep on top of the times with its attention to MP3 and download and play technology, some analysts have voiced concern that the company has missed out on the big revenue opportunity, which is aggregating content and directing users to it.

To be sure, Real has made a substantial effort in this area with its RealGuide. Today Glaser announced that RealGuide had doubled its users and that those users had doubled their usage, effectively quadrupling use in the last six weeks.

But the company is still way behind the industry's leader, Broadcast.com, which has agreed to be acquired by Yahoo.

"Broadcast.com is in the millions of unique users per month," noted NetRatings vice president of analytic services Allen Weiner. "Real and Microsoft's WebEvents are way behind in the tens of thousands."

Weiner painted a picture of the multimedia future in which audio and video content aggregators become the equivalents of what portals such as Yahoo are today.

"The Web is going to be so filled up with content that there's going to have to be a way for users to find their way around and find what they're looking for," Weiner said. "And like today's portals, those sites are going to have tremendous leverage for e-commerce and other revenue opportunities."

Weiner raised the prospect that Broadcast.com--which is sure to vastly increase its audience after its acquisition by Yahoo is completed--could throw a serious monkey wrench in any player provider's plans by choosing to favor one product over another.

"Broadcast.com in the past has been player-agnostic," Weiner noted. "But they could change that. Broadcast.com still needs to be dealt with. They're going to be around."